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,, Education and the Public Interest Center 

*'■ ' '/ Univ&rsElv of Colorado at Boulder 

Education Policy 
Research . m . 

i i . C J .' i i , : 

The Bracey Report 

On the Condition of Public Education, 2009 

Gerald Bracey 

November 2009 

Education Policy Research Unit 

Division of Advanced Studies in Education Policy, 
Leadership, and Curriculum 
Mary Lou Fulton Institute 
and Graduate School Education, 

Arizona State University 
P.O. Box 87241 1 , Tempe, AZ 85287-241 1 
Telephone: (480) 965-1886 

Education and the Public Interest Center 

School of Education, 

University of Colorado 
Boulder, CO 80309-0249 
Telephone: (303) 447-EPIC 
Fax: (303) 492-7090 

• Suggested Citation: 

Bracey, G. (2009). The Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education. Boulder and Tempe: 
Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved [date] from 

Kevin Weiner: Editor 

Patricia H. Hinchey: Academic Editor 

Erik Gunn: Managing Editor 

EPIC/EPRU policy briefs are peer reviewed by members of the Edi 
torial Review Board. For information on the board and its membe 

In Memoriam: Gerald Bracey 1940 - 2009 

For 18 years, “The Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education,” 
an annual review of education research and policy issues, was published by Phi 
Delta Kappan. In 2009, EPIC/EPRU was pleased to become its new publisher. 
Sadly, Gerald W. Bracey passed away before he finished editing what will be the 
final Bracey Report. We have suffered a great loss. Although he was a social 
scientist of considerable talent he eschewed esoteric language and instead spoke 
and wrote plainly. His writings left strong impressions on readers, whether expert 
or layperson. When he judged that an official, a newspaper, or a scholar had 
played lightly with the truth, his expert knowledge was directed toward withering 
critiques. He fearlessly exposed the errors in fact, flaws in methods and illogic 
that were built into all too much education research and all too many education 
“reforms.” Jerry had little patience for received wisdom, no matter how powerful 
its purveyors. 

Fortunately for us all, Jerry’s last report was sufficiently enough devel- 
oped that it was possible for Susan Ohanian and Pat Hinchey to finish the neces- 
sary editorial work. Jerry’s wife, Iris, helped, too, by encouraging us to publish 
the final Bracey Report and by providing Jerry’s notes and reference material. As 
a result, the Report has been completed with fidelity to Jerry’s words and inten- 
tions. The Report is almost completely Jerry’s but, of course, any shortcomings 
are ours. 

When Jerry passed away, we were contacted by many of the people who 
have been touched by Jerry and his work and were asked to create a memorial 
fund or project that others could donate to in his memory. We have now created 
one, attached to the policy centers that had been Jerry’s academic home following 
his 2005 departure from George Mason University. 

Working with the CU Foundation, we are building a memorial fund that 
would, if fully funded, provide a doctoral fellowship in Jerry’s name. We’re 
thinking of it as the Bracey Memorial Fellowship, given to a doctoral student with 
a research-based, hard-nosed commitment to further truth, equity, and social jus- 
tice. If we reach the $25,000 level for all donations in Jerry’s name, we can create 
an ongoing scholarship/fellowship. Even if we do not reach that threshold, we will 
still use the money for student support in Jerry’s name. Those who would like to 
contribute may go to . 

Our plans also include a continuation of the Bracey Report tradition by 
publishing an annual report in his honor. Realizing what big footsteps we will be 
attempting to fill, we hope our contributions will serve others as well as Jerry’s 
have served us. Here then is the 2009 Bracey Report on the Condition of Public 

Publishers’ Note 

The Bracey Report is unique, a departure from EPIC/EPRU’s other publi- 
cations. For this year’s report, we asked him to identify and discuss the research 
support for what he considers to be three of the most important assumptions about 
how to reform public education. Whether you agree or disagree with his analysis, 
we hope you find his views provocative and helpful as you make up your own 
mind about how best to go about improving America’s public schools. 

Alex Molnar 
Kevin Weiner 

The Bracey Report 

on the Condition of Public Education, 2009 

Gerald W. Bracey 

In the previous 18 years, the basic technology of the Bracey Report was 
the drawer. For 12 months I put material that I thought had report potential into a 
drawer that, as the years went by, grew from a small desk drawer to the bottom 
half of a file cabinet — an unobtrusive measure of how education, for better and 
worse, has moved ever more to center stage in policy discussions about the na- 
tion’s social well-being. Toward June (for an annual August deadline) I would 
empty the drawer/file, sort the contents into categories, and write about those that 
seemed the most cogent. In the last few years, I have had to apologize for not 
covering some issues because of space constraints. The new process begun with 
EPIC/EPRU for 2009 reverses the drawer-dump procedure. We decided in ad- 
vance on three prominent policy-relevant assumptions. This narrows the scope of 
the coverage, but broadens the last- 12-months focus of earlier reports, extending 
its temporal range. These assumptions are that: 

1. High-quality schools can eliminate the achievement gap between 
whites and minorities. 

2. Mayoral control of public schools is an improvement over the more 
common elected board governance systems. 

3. Higher standards will improve the performance of public schools. 

I take each issue in turn. 

High-quality Schools 

Why Choose This Issue? 

Ever since the launch of Sputnik in 1957, schools have been seen as the 
failing institution in America. An endlessly repeated claim has been that for 
America to “succeed,” the nation needs more “high-quality” schools. Secretary of 
Education Arne Duncan contends, “We have to educate ourselves to a better 
economy” 1 The issue of school quality is thus at the forefront of attempts to im- 
prove society as a whole. 

In his May 7, 2009 column, an essay that reverberated throughout policy 
circles, New York Times pundit David Brooks cast the issue this way: “Some ex- 
perts, mostly surrounding the education establishment, argue that schools alone 
can’t produce big changes. The problems are in society, and you have to work on 
broader issues like economic inequality. Reformers, on the other hand, have ar- 
gued that school-based approaches can produce big results.” One can certainly 
contend that Brook’s dichotomy between the “establishment” and the “refor- 
mers” is false, but it is common today. The same can be said of his claim that 

1 of 24 

“educational establishment” types argue that “the problems are in society” alone. I 
know no education professionals who make that argument, though I know many 
who argue, as I would, that we must address problems in society as well as in the 
schools. Still, the idea that education professionals deny that reform is necessary 
in some schools and prefer to shrug their shoulders and wait for social change re- 
mains a dominant, if inaccurate, perception. 

What Do We Know? 

We must begin with what we don’t know: there is no common definition 
of “high-quality school.” No Child Left Behind has various classifications for un- 
derperforming schools and sanctions for those that repeatedly fail to make Ade- 
quate Yearly Progress (AYP) on test score increases, even if only one of the re- 
quired reported subgroups fails to attain that criterion. However, NCLB is silent 
on “adequately-performing” or “high-performing” schools, by default suggesting 
only that more successful schools are characterized primarily by high attendance 
(for enrolled students) and by some level of test performance (on disparate state 
tests with arbitrary cutoff scores — more on that later). 

Test scores, however, are an imperfect instrument for judging the quality 
of a school, or, as Iris Rotberg has observed, the quality of any national education 
system. Nevertheless, they are the currency of the day. In testing terms, data (de- 
tailed below) indicate that increases in high-quality schools will have to come 
largely from low-income neighborhoods, where students with the most challenges 
have long been served by the most under-resourced schools. Thus, the key ques- 
tion becomes can schools alone overcome the difficulties associated with poverty ? 
Advocates who answer yes usually contend that to be high-quality, schools need 
only high standards, high expectations, and strong principals leading a faculty of 
highly qualified teachers. However, terms like “high standards” and “high expec- 
tations” are usually left undefined, as if their meanings were self-evident — which 
they are not. Ignoring such gaps in rationale, No Child Left Behind’ s reliance on 
testing and sanctions codifies the conception that schools alone are capable of 
erasing the achievement gap and need only to be required to do so. 

Similar calls for more high-quality schools, however defined, issue from 
multiple quarters. Many critics cite the performance of American students on in- 
ternational comparisons of mathematics and science. The most often used com- 
parison comes from rankings on the Programme for International Student As- 
sessment (PISA), from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Devel- 
opment (OECD). Most recently (2006), American students ranked 24th of 30 
OECD nations in mathematics and 17th of 30 in science. Errors in the test book- 
lets prevented the reporting scores for American students in reading. 

It should be noted that these rankings are determined by nations’ average 
scores. Some researchers have suggested, however, that average score compari- 
sons are not useful: even presuming that the tests have some meaning for future 
accomplishment, average students are not likely to be the leaders in fields of ma- 
thematics and science. Those roles are more likely to fall to those scoring well. A 
publication from OECD itself observes that if one examines the number of high- 

2 of 24 

est-scoring students in science, the United States has 25% of all high-scoring stu- 
dents in the world (at least in “the world” as defined by the 58 nations taking part 
in the assessment — the 30 OECD nations and 28 “partner” countries). Among na- 
tions with high average scores, Japan accounted for 13% of the highest scorers, 
Korea 5%, Taipei 3%, Finland 1%, and Hong Kong 1%. Singapore did not partic- 
ipate. The picture emerging from this highest-scorer comparison is far different 
than that suggested by the frequently cited national average comparisons; it is a 
picture that suggests many American schools are actually doing very well indeed. 

Of course, the U.S. is much larger than these other countries and should be 
expected to produce larger numbers of successful students. But it is only when we 
look beyond the mean and consider the distribution of students and schools that 
we see the true picture. Students attending American schools run the gamut from 
excellent to poor. Well-resourced schools serving wealthy neighborhoods are 
showing excellent results. Poorly-resourced schools serving low-income com- 
munities of color do far worse. Where is it, then, that improvement is needed? 

I said above that if there are to be more high-quality schools (or at least, 
“high-quality” schools in terms of high or rising test scores), they will have to be 
developed in low-income neighborhoods. Evidence for this contention comes 
from the 2001 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). 4 It is 
evidence that suggests the magnitude of the problem to be overcome. 

Table 1. PIRLS Performance and Poverty 

Percent of Students 
in the School in Poverty 


Percent of U. S. students attending 
schools in this category 
















Highest scoring nation: Sweden 561 (Finland did not participate) 

U. S. average: 542; International Average: 500; Number of countries: 27 

Several points from these data should be noted. First, the schools with, 
say, fewer than 10% of the students in poverty are not necessarily the nation’s 
wealthiest schools, although some, no doubt, are. The other 90% of students could 
be from white collar homes, blue collar homes, or some mix. From this statistic 
alone, we cannot tell. Second, the top two categories, which contain about 34% of 
all students, outscored the highest nation. Third, although it cannot be seen from 
these few figures, if the schools with poverty levels of 25-50% constituted a na- 
tion, their average score of 551 would rank them 4 th among the 27 participating 
countries. In fact, then, the majority of American students did very well on this 
measure: the only American schools with scores well below the national average 
were those whose student population was composed almost entirely of students 
from poor homes. 

3 of 24 

The strong relationship between poverty and test scores seen in the PIRLS 
data are replicated in the Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT), in the Trends in In- 
ternational Math and Science Study (TIMSS), and in the National Assessment of 
Educational Progress (NAEP). (The relationship cannot be shown in the OECD’s 
PISA discussed earlier because it tests 15-year-olds, and there is no good direct or 
proxy measure for high-school students’ poverty levels.) 

Before taking up the question of whether schools alone can remedy the 
achievement gap for poor children, we have to ask what is known about the effect 
of poverty on children. What are some of the out-of-school factors that contribute 
to poor children’s lower performance? 

First, there is consensus among pediatricians that children in poverty live 
under more stress than those in more affluent, and hence secure, environments. 
This stress can have life-long damaging impact: 

Neural circuits for dealing with stress are particularly malleable (or 
“plastic”) during the fetal and early childhood periods. Early expe- 
riences shape how readily they are activated and how well they can 
be contained and turned off. Toxic stress during this early period 
can affect developing brain circuits and hormonal systems in a way 
that leads to poorly controlled stress-response systems that will be 
overly-active and show to shut down when faced with threats 
throughout the lifespan. 5 

Although this report doesn’t discuss implications of early stress for class- 
room learning and behavior problems, it does link prolonged childhood stress to 
depression, anxiety disorders, alcoholism, drug abuse, cardiovascular disease, di- 
abetes and stroke. It is impossible to think that the precursors of such an array of 
unhappy adult outcomes would not be visible in the classroom. 

The National Research Council’s Institute of Medicine reached similar 

The inextricable transaction between biology and experience also 
contributes to a better understanding of developmental disorders 
and the effect of early intervention. Hereditary vulnerabilities es- 
tablish probabilistic, not deterministic, developmental pathways 
that evolve in concert with the experiential stressors, or buffers, in 
the family, the neighborhood, and the school. That is why early 
experiences of abuse, neglect, poverty, and family violence are of 
such concern. They are likely to enlist the genetic vulnerabilities of 
some children into a downward spiral of progressive dysfunction. 

By contrast, when children grow up in more supportive contexts, 
the hereditary vulnerabilities that some children experience may 
never be manifested in problematic behavior. Understanding the 
co-action of nature and nurture contributes to early prevention. 6 

4 of 24 

Poor children get off to a bad start. Their mothers are less likely to obtain 
adequate prenatal care and they are more likely to be Low Birth Weight (LBW) 
babies. LBW and, especially, Very-LBW children have cognitive and emotional 
difficulties later on. Black Americans are almost twice as likely as whites to have 
LBW babies and 270% more likely to have VLBW children 7 

As for other prenatal influences, David Berliner of Arizona State Universi- 
ty notes, “If alcohol, tobacco, and cocaine use are higher in poor neighborhoods, 
as is often found, then the schools in those neighborhoods also will have more 


children whose intrauterine environment was compromised.” These drugs reduce 
head circumference, reduce cortical gray matter and reduce total brain volume as 
measured by MRIs taken at school age. The effects of the three drugs are thought 
to act cumulatively. Even worse for later behavioral outcomes is prenatal inges- 
tion of amphetamine or methamphetamine. 

Other issues abound. For example, a scandal erupted in Prince George’s 
County, Maryland in early 2007 when a 12-year-old died from an infected tooth. 
A simple timely extraction would have saved the child, but the mother was unin- 
sured and could not find a dentist to pull the tooth. Eventually, the infection 
spread to his brain, killing him. This for-want-of-a-dentist case — occurring next 
door to the houses of Congress in the most prodigal nation in the world — is an ex- 
ample of the more general problem of health care: Poor kids don’t get much of it. 

We can imagine the misery of this boy and certainly should consider how 
much he was able to pay attention in class during the months of his ordeal. And 
when his 10-year-old brother with a swollen jaw complained of a tooth ache, it 
again took months to find an oral surgeon, who found he had six abscessed teeth. 9 
There is no press report on how he was doing in school during these months. Ac- 
cording to the U.S. General Accounting Office, untreated cavities are nearly three 
times as prevalent among poor children as among middle-class children. 10 

Children with a mouthful of aching teeth can’t concentrate; children who 
can’t see will have reading difficulties; children who can’t hear what the teacher 
is saying will likely look like they aren’t paying attention. 

In addition, poor children are made more susceptible to illness by the ab- 
sence of nutritious food, or even of food itself. In comparison to national aver- 
ages, Berliner observes, food insecurity occurs 3.4 times as often in households 
below the official poverty line, 2.7 times as often in household headed by single 
women and twice as often among black and Latino households. The food inse- 
curity problem is particularly pernicious because the energy generated by food 
goes first to critical organs. If there is any left over, it is allocated for growth. The 
last priorities for food-generated energy are social activity and learning. 

It is not only food insecurity but also food quality that affects poor child- 
ren. According to Linda Perlstein, who observed children for a year in a poor 
school, “Many children in poverty are given bottles of sugar water or Oodles of 
Noodles broth as infants, Froot Loops as toddlers, and by the time they show up at 
school they’re often overweight, undernourished and plagued with rotting 
teeth.” 11 Perlstein saw many arriving at school at 7:45 clutching sodas from 
McDonald’s and they laughed when she asked them if they had to drink milk at 

5 of 24 

Poor children are also more likely to ingest quantities of pollutants. Coal- 
fired power plants and municipal waste incinerators are the two major sources of 
mercury in this country, and both are much more likely to be found in or near 
poor neighborhoods. Mercury is known to produce brain and nerve damage in fe- 
tuses and young children. 

A more common contaminant is lead. The most thorough examination of 
lead has been conducted by Michael Martin of the Arizona School Boards Asso- 
ciation, whose 2002 monograph is titled “A Strange Ignorance.” The ignorance 
is strange, says Martin, because there is so much evidence about the ill effects of 
lead poisoning uncovered by pediatricians, doctors, anthropologists, criminolo- 
gists and many other professions. 

Yet politicians and educators ignore the evidence and continue to march 
under the misbegotten banner that “all children can learn.” Martin presents moun- 
tains of evidence linking lead poisoning to an inability to learn, to attention deficit 
disorders, to violence and to drug use. He also reports that the cover story of the 
July 15, 1991, issue of Newsweek was about the many pernicious effects of lead 
poisoning in children. And still such poisoning continues. As in many areas, poli- 
cy decisions have favored industry and economic concerns over children’s health. 

Discussing family relations and stress, Berliner observes that “Children 
from families that suffer from violence, from whatever income group and race, of- 
ten display social and emotional problems that manifest themselves in the schools 
they attend. Too often these children show higher rates of aggressive behavior, 
depression, anxiety, decreased social competence and diminished academic per- 
formance. Children exposed to violence were found to suffer symptoms that re- 

1 o 

semble post- traumatic distress disorder.” Earlier he had described how these 
dysfunctional symptoms also have negative effects on the children’s classroom 
peers. Violence is most often visited upon poor children. 

Even summer poses a challenge to poor children. In a 2007 large longitu- 
dinal study, 14 sociologist Karl Alexander and colleagues found poor children pro- 
gressing well during the school year (at least as indicated by standardized tests), 
but losing much of their gain over the summer. In contrast, middle class and af- 
fluent children did not show such “summer loss.” That might be, Alexander rea- 
soned, because middle class children spend their summers going to libraries, to 
science and art museums, and to fairs; they also often travel with their families. 
Even organized sports teach children about mathematics, rules, teamwork, plan- 
ning, and so on. Likewise, a family game like Scrabble is about linguistics, psy- 
chology, mathematics, memory, competition, and doggedness. It’s about master- 
ing the rules. 15 In short, middle class children experience many growth opportuni- 
ties not available to most poor children. Alexander felt such advantages accounted 
for the fact that middle class and affluent children do not display the summer loss 
so often noted in poor children. 

I offer here only a sketch of the large array of physical, medical, social and 
psychological disadvantages that poor children encounter in their environments. I 
could have described more. Readers are referred to Berliner’s monograph and to 
the “Poverty is Poison” chapter in Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality . 16 These 

6 of 24 

disadvantages all operate to attenuate achievement in schools. The question is, 
can “high-quality” schools alone offset them? 

How Promising Is This Reform? 

In relation to that question, the influential Brooks’ piece mentioned above 
is worth a much closer look. Brooks touts what he calls the “Harlem Miracle,” the 
fact that in 2008, the eighth- graders in Harlem Promise Academy outscored the 
New York City average for white students. As Brooks put it, “In math, Promise 
Academy eliminated the achievement gap between its black students and the city 
average for white students.” He points to this outcome as an example that high- 
quality schools — or what he terms “no excuses” schools — can alone transform 
student outcomes. This argument, however, is based on a single statistic in a sin- 
gle study by Harvard economists Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer titled “Are High- 
Quality Schools Enough to Close the Achievement Gap?” 

A closer look at this highly publicized data point shows that it was true on- 
ly for one year, one grade, and one subject. For other grades, the students re- 
mained substantially below white students, and for all three years of the compari- 
son, the gaps between whites and blacks on the English-Language Arts tests were 
quite large. In addition, Columbia University sociologist Aaron Pallas has ob- 
served that these students also took the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, where they 
scored only at the 33 rd percentile despite their strong performance on state tests. 
“Scoring at the 33 rd percentile,” deadpanned Pallas, “is not a great success story.” 
Pallas titled his blog on the topic “Just how gullible is David Brooks?” 19 

Even Dobbie and Fryer, whose 2009 work underpins the Brooks piece, de- 
scribe the Promise Academy schools in terms that make them seem unique, atypi- 
cal of images conjured by the phrase “high-quality school.” First, they estimate 
that Promise Academy students who are below grade-level spend twice as much 
time in class as the typical New York City public school student, while those at or 
above grade-level spend 50% more. Dobbie and Fryer further note: “The schools 
provide free medical, dental and mental-health services (students screened upon 
entry and receive regular check-ups), high-quality-nutritious cafeteria meals, sup- 
port for parents in the form of food baskets, meals, bus fare and so forth... the 
school also makes a concerted effort to change the culture of achievement, sur- 
rounding students with the importance of hard work in achieving success.”” Such 
attention to student health and other non-academic interventions is neither cited 
by Brooks as possible contributing factors nor typical in the high expecta- 
tions/high standards formula for “high-achieving” schools. 

Brooks portrays Promise Academy as an exemplar, a clear demonstration 
that schools alone can reduce the pernicious effects of impoverished neighbor- 
hoods described by pediatricians, Berliner, Alexander, Martin, the Broader Bolder 
Approach coalition, and others. However, Promise Academy schools are instead 
schools that consciously target the effects of “economic inequality” that Brooks 
dismisses. And even as Promise Academy invests resources into such things as 
medical care and nutritious meals, the test scores aren’t yet what Brooks appears 
to think they are. For “high-quality schools” to be a promising reform, even nar- 

7 of 24 

rowly defined by test scores, conditions outside the schoolroom must be recog- 
nized and addressed. The Harlem Promise Academy actually emerges not as an 
example of what single-minded focus on test scores can accomplish, but as a 
poster child for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education coalition, which ar- 
gues that school improvement must be accompanied by attention to social inequa- 

Of course, there are ways of defining “high-quality schools” independent 
of test scores. The University of Seattle’s David Marshak has" wondered why 
President Obama is not trying to reform schools to make all schools more like 
Sidwell Friends School, which the President’s daughters attend. Many would find 
Sidwell’s approach “high-quality,” but test scores are not mentioned in its state- 
ments of philosophy or expectations. Sidwell emphasizes “greeting the day with 
enthusiasm,” “a search for truth,” and “sensitivity to the human condition.” The 
President has not answered Marshak. He should. 

Mayoral Control of Public Schools 

Why Choose This Issue? 

In 1897, Mark Twain wrote “In the first place God made idiots. That was 
for practice. Then He made school boards.” A 2008 article in The Atlantic was 
titled, “First, Kill All the School Boards.” Thus, the governance of public schools 
through local school boards has long been controversial and continues to be. 

In the post-World War I decades, Progressives attempted to improve 
school boards as representatives of their communities by making the elections 
non-partisan and scheduling them separately from regular political elections. 
Some now criticize this approach as making the elections safe for union-backed 
candidates: few people vote in off-season elections, allowing unions to win by 
mobilizing only the few people needed to support particular candidates. 

Currently, an increasingly popular alternative is to have mayors run the 
schools, at least in large urban systems. Advocates for mayoral control contend 
that these systems are too large and unwieldy to be effectively managed by boards 
whose composition changes, whose existence blurs lines of authority, and whose 
members are not truly accountable to anyone. Billionaire foundation head Eli 
Broad told a 2009 Manhattan gathering, “We don’t know anything about how to 
teach or reading curriculum or any of that. But what we do know about is man- 
agement and governance.” And that’s why, he told the audience, “I’m a big be- 
liever in mayoral control.” 

The most visible systems under mayoral control are those in Chicago and 
New York. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s schools CEO, Arne Duncan, is now 
Secretary of Education. In his new role, Duncan has been barnstorming the nation 
urging mayors to take control of schools. Disingenuously, at the 2009 convention 
of the National School Boards Association (NSBA), he downplayed his efforts, 
since mayoral control diminishes the power of boards or eliminates them alto- 
gether. He said only, “I’ve been challenging mayors to think about stepping up 
and doing more to help every child get a quality education.” A week earlier, how- 

8 of 24 

ever, at the U. S. Conference of Mayors National Forum on Education, he said, 
“At the end of my tenure, if only seven mayors are in control, I think I will have 
failed.” Seven is the number of city school districts currently run by mayors. 

Duncan argues that strong leadership and stability are needed for urban 
school success. It is true that urban school superintendents reporting to school 
boards turn over rapidly. At the NSBA conference, Duncan observed that San Di- 
ego (where the convention was held) has had five superintendents in five years. 
(In addition, the superintendent at that time has now left for Houston). At the 
Mayors’ forum in Washington, DC, he pointed out that Baltimore had had seven 
different heads in 10 years. In contrast, the superintendent or chancellor or CEO 
or whatever the head of the schools is called, would, in the absence of a falling 
out with the mayor, presumably hold office as long as the mayor — at least four 
years, perhaps eight, and perhaps even longer in places without mayoral term lim- 
its. Thus, mayoral control of urban schools systems is likely to be a major policy 
issue as long as Duncan is Secretary of Education, Richard Daley is Mayor of 
Chicago, and Michael Bloomberg is Mayor of New York. 

What Do We Know? 

Chicago’s Daley has run the schools for 13 years, with Duncan as CEO for 
the last seven. Mayor Bloomberg and his Chancellor, Joel Klein, have had the 
reins of the New York schools for seven years, since 2002; recently, the New 
York legislature agreed to let Bloomberg run for a third term in 2009, and it au- 
thorized mayoral control of schools through at least 2015. 

Is there evidence that over these seven-year periods the schools have im- 
proved? Test scores comprise the most readily accessible, if limited, evidence. 
Scores on New York’s two state tests suggest there has been improvement, but re- 
sults from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) suggest just 
the opposite. There are reasons to believe the state test results do not report accu- 
rate outcomes. 

Duncan’s principal modus operandi has been the “turn around.” As he ex- 
plained his strategy to the National Press Club on May 29, “[What] we did in Chi- 
cago was we moved the adults out. We kept the children, and brought in new 
teams of adults — same children, same families, same socioeconomic challenges, 
same neighborhoods, same buildings, different set of expectations, different set of 
beliefs. And what we saw was dramatic changes.” 

Very little of this statement is true. Yes, the adults were removed, includ- 
ing custodial, security, clerical and cafeteria staffs. But the children did not re- 
main the same. For example, one school Duncan has held up as a model is the 
Sherman School of Excellence, an elementary school. But data indicate that dur- 
ing Duncan’s strategizing, enrollment dropped, mobility increased, and the per- 
centage of low-income students at Sherman declined substantially. Not surprising- 
ly, with the influx of more affluent students, the percentage of students who met 
or exceeded standards on the state test rose — from 30.5% to 40.3% in reading, 
over two years. Especially in light of the changing population, these modest re- 
sults hardly seem to justify this reform as a “national model.” Oddly, in fact, the 

9 of 24 

current percentage of Sherman students who meet or exceed standards is smaller 
than at some other schools currently slated for similar “turnaround.” Moreover, on 
the state science test, Sherman scores actually fell after the reform. 

Another major Daley/Duncan effort is called Renaissance 2010. At a 
Commercial Club of Chicago event in 2004, Mayor Daley introduced Renais- 
sance 2010 as a plan to close 60 schools and open 100 new ones which would be 
small schools, charter schools, or contract schools. According to an article in Re- 
thinking Schools,' “Renaissance 2010 has been traumatic, largely ineffective, 
and destabilizing” to the communities affected. When children leave their neigh- 
borhoods, as they do under this new organization, they sometimes have to cross 
gang boundaries to attend their new schools, resulting in spikes in violence. 

And when a school goes through turnaround, it loses the social fabric an 
experienced and professional staff provides. As the nation witnessed the horrific 
stomping/beating death of a Christian Fenger High School student on YouTube, 
they saw a “turnaround” become the deadliest school reform of all. Writing in the 
Chicago Sun-Times , high school teacher Deborah Lynch pointed out 25 that 
“reform” at Fenger meant “dumping all the staff, even the engineers,” thereby re- 
moving human capital from the school: 

We have relationships with kids who may not even have another 
adult in their homes, or their lives. It’s called human capital. We 
know brothers and sisters. . . We ask them how their sick mother is 
or how their job search is going. . . . We give them bus money 
when they have forgotten theirs. We share our lunches with those 
who missed breakfast. We kid them, we laugh with them, we ex- 
hort them to do better, to get to school on time, to work hard. . . . 

Oh yes, and we teach them. Yet you have to have a relationship 
with these kids in order to teach them. 

The school website indicates that along with extensive building renova- 
tions, “a highly talented faculty and staff were hired,” which means that when 
Derrion Albert was killed, no one in this turnaround school had known the kids 
for more than three weeks. 

The results of Renaissance 2010 have not sat well with the very organiza- 
tion to which Mayor Daley announced it, the Commercial Club of Chicago, a po- 
werful 132-year-old corporate institution. In a June, 2009 report, 26 the Civic 
Committee of the Commercial Club claimed that the gains are largely the result of 
lowered standards: 

[Mjost of the improvement in Chicago’s elementary school scores 
over the past decade appears not to be due to real improvement in 
student performance. It appears to be due to changes in the tests, 
most notably those made in 2006 when a new testing company was 
brought in and a new State test was implemented, with new for- 
mats and test substance, and lower cut scores (most notably in 8 th 
grade math) along with new testing procedures. 

10 of 24 

On July 11, 2006, Mayor Daley pointed to the surging test scores and said 
“With these results, it’s clear we are on our way to becoming the best urban 
school district in the nation.” This prompted the editorial writers at the Chicago 
Tribune, to declare that “They must be teaching some new kind of fuzzy math at 
Chicago Public Schools” and to point out that the state board had lowered the 
passing score for eighth-grade math from the 67 th percentile to the 38 th . 

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), less subject to 
“test prep” or other manipulations, has conducted “trial” assessments in 1 1 large 
urban districts, Chicago among them. The results do not bear out the mayor’s 
joyous pronouncement. In 2003, Chicago eighth-grade math scores for white stu- 
dents showed 25% of them at or above the proficient level, a percentage that rose 
only to 35% in 2007. Moreover, Chicago’s schools are not predominantly white, 
but overwhelmingly black and Latino. As a Harvard Civil Rights Project report 


indicated, Chicago’s public schools are “only a few percentage points from an 
experience of total apartheid for black students.” 

The vaunted improvements in test scores do not appear for Chicago’s 
black and Latino students. In 2003, only 4% of black eighth-graders were profi- 
cient or better in math; that figure rose to only 6% in 2007. Of the remaining nine 
cities in the NAEP trials, only Cleveland and the District of Columbia, both under 
mayoral control, showed less growth for black eighth-graders. For Latino eighth- 
graders in Chicago, the 8% proficient or better in math in 2003 rose to 12% in 
2007. Among the other nine cities studied, only Charlotte and New York showed 
less growth. Moreover, gaps in achievement between black and white students 
and between Latino and white students were large (25% of white eighth-graders 
scored at or above proficient, with 4% of black and 8% of Latino eighth- graders 
at those levels), and they grew between 2003 and 2007 for grades 4 and 8. 

Another potential indicator of success or failure, teacher stability in 
schools, shows no indication of success, either. Teacher stability has decreased, 
especially in low-income schools and predominantly black schools. Black, white 
and Latino teachers have all been moving out of those schools at increasing rates. 

To some, Chicago’s Renaissance looks more like a return to the Dark 
Ages. What about New York? 

New York’s Chancellor, Joel Klein, also arrived in 2002; Mayor Bloom- 
berg’s supervision of the schools could extend to 2015. Before a recent New York 
Senate vote, the Assembly had passed a bill extending the mayor’s control from 
2009 to 2015, but the Senate proved more troublesome. In spite of Bloomberg’s 
earlier warning that if his reign weren’t extended he thought “there’ d be riots in 
the streets,” 31 the Senate, deadlocked and in a state of utter chaos, refused to reau- 
thorize mayoral control before a recess. Bloomberg said he would ask the gover- 
nor to call for a special session; on a radio show, he called for the State Police to 
“drag” senators to the Capitol for a vote. In response, a Harlem senator accused 
the mayor of “treating us like we’re some people on his plantation.” Despite this 
uproar, when the Senate reconvened, it voted 47-8 to extend mayoral control 
through 2015. 

11 of 24 

As in Chicago, improvements in New York state test scores were trum- 
peted to indicate that “[M]ayoral control had produced revolutionary improve- 
ments” and “Our reforms are working. Our schools are heading in the right direc- 
tion.” In 2009, 82 % of students in grades 3 through 8 passed the mathematics 
test, compared to 74% the previous year and 57% three years earlier. 

However, according to the New York Daily News, these gains were illu- 
sory. Columbia University sociologist Jennifer Jennings found that “Only a frac- 
tion of the simple arithmetic, algebra and statistics that kids should learn every 
year has been tested... Nearly identical questions have even appeared each 
year. ..Only 54.7% of the specific math skills that the state requires seventh- 
graders to learn were ever tested in the four years the exam has been given.” 
Jennings found that, over time, the tests increasingly focused on skills that should 
have been learned in the previous grade. The New York Times reported 34 that the 
passing scores on the state tests had been lowered statewide and that attaining a 
minimal passing score for New York City could be obtained by random guessing. 

Jennings and Aaron Pallas, also at Columbia, found Bloomberg’s claim 

o c 

that the ethnic achievement gaps are closing to be false. “[W]e have demon- 
strated that racial achievement gaps in New York City have remained stubbornly 
persistent between 2003 and 2008. Contrary to the frequent claims of Mayor 
Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein that they have substantially reduced the 
achievement gap, we show that these gaps are largely unchanged or, in many cas- 
es, growing.” 

NAEP results from New York also tell a story similar to that in Chicago. 
For fourth-grade reading, from 2003 to 2007, the percentage of white students 
proficient or above went from 35% to 45%; for black students, from 9% to 15%; 
for Latinos, from 15% to 16%; and for Asians, from 39% to 43%. At the eighth- 
grade level in reading, the percentage of whites proficient or above went from 
42% to 41%; for blacks, from 13% to 11%; for Latinos, from 17% to 13%; and 
for Asians, from 35% to 37%. Thus, none of the groups showed evidence of sub- 
stantial growth, with the possible exception of white fourth-graders. Particularly 
at the eighth-grade level, some showed decline. 

In mathematics, at the fourth-grade level the percentage proficient or bet- 
ter did rise for all ethnic groups, but these increases were paralleled in the nation 
as a whole and by the other cities participating in the NAEP urban trials. At the 
eighth-grade level, stagnation is evident for all groups except Asians. In 2003, 
38% of Asians scored proficient or better, while in 2007, 53% did. 

To what Bloomberg efforts can such dismal results be attributed? The 
mayor took control of the schools in June 2002 and named Joel Klein, a lawyer, 
as Chancellor at the end of July. Reading the 171 pages of The Schools Under 
Bloomberg and Klein, 36 one senses that the schools have become the mayor’s pri- 
vate fiefdom and that his focus has centered ever more on reading and math. 
Money was cut from an arts program even as the central administration grew from 
1,729 in 2002 to 2,442 in 2007. The city comptroller 37 called Klein’s money ma- 
nipulations a “shell game” and observed that a net of 2,000 teachers had disap- 
peared from classrooms. 

12 of 24 

When Bloomberg took over, the board of education was replaced with the 
Panel for Educational Policy, an attempt to establish a “balance of authority” be- 
tween Bloomberg and the rest of the system. However, it quickly became known 
as the Panel of Educational Puppets. The panelists, “an investment banker, a lin- 
gerie store owner and an expert on electromagnetics among them — rarely engage 
in discussions with those who rise to address them. They do not debate the educa- 
tional issues of the day, but spend most sessions applauding packaged presenta- 

o o 

tions by staff. Some have barely uttered a public word during their tenures.” 

And, if they do utter any words, they’d better be in support of the mayor’s 
programs. The original panel opposed the mayor’s plan to retain third-graders 
who did not pass the two state tests. As time drew near for a vote on the policy, 
Bloomberg fired two panel members and replaced them with two people who 
owed their jobs to him. A Bloomberg ally, the Staten Island Borough President, 
replaced his panel member hours before the vote. “Never again did any of the 
mayoral appointees to the Panel challenge his position on an issue. This incident 
is remembered as the ‘The Monday Night Massacre,’ and it heralded the mayor’s 
conclusive suppression of the Panel’s legislative powers.” Bloomberg was un- 
apologetic. “Mayoral control means mayoral control, thank you very much. They 
are my representatives, and they are going to vote for things I believe in.” 40 

Mayoral control, Bloomberg style, also means control of information. Sul- 
livan reports that during his tenure on the panel, before a Monday vote on whether 
to extend grade retention to fifth grade, he repeatedly asked for results of a RAND 
study that had been commissioned two years prior. He received it, all 479 pages, 
on the Saturday before the vote. The rest of the Panel gained access at 8 p.m. 

Bloomberg has argued that under his watch graduation rates have im- 
proved. But the continued practice of “discharging” students out of schools calls 
that into question. According to the New York Times, 41 discharges “are the black 
hole of the system’s record keeping. School administrators are required to explain 
each student’s departure by assigning one of more than three dozen codes, indi- 
cating, for example, that the student moved out of the city, enrolled in a vocation- 
al program, got a full-time job, moved into a high school equivalency programs or 
was expelled after a long-term suspension.” Most appear to end up in GED pro- 
grams, but few appear to obtain that certificate. The New York Times reporters use 
the term introduced by Steve Orel, when he opened the World of Opportunity in 
Birmingham, Alabama, to rescue students “officially terminated” by the city 


school system: Pushout. 

If discharge rates increase, so do graduation rates, because discharges are 
not counted as dropouts. No doubt not all discharges are dropouts, but Jennings 
and Haimson note if they were counted as such, the city’s officially reported 
graduation rate of 62% in 2007 would fall to 46%. It would fall further to 44% if 
GED completers were not counted as graduates. 

The graduation rate is also inflated to some extent — no one knows how 
much — by the technique of “credit recovery.” Students who fail a course can get 
credit by activities — apparently with nothing like the rigor of attending class — 

13 of 24 

other than retaking the course or going to summer school. Most often, they sit in 
front of a computer and complete electronic workbook assignments. 

How Promising Is This Reform? 

A close look at the two most visible exemplars of mayoral control, Chica- 
go and New York, yields results that counter the image created by those in con- 
trol. “Reforms” that are supposed to help children do better are primarily used to 
make the adults who control the schools look good. Performance on tests that are 
subject to manipulation show improvement. Performance on tests that are free of 
manipulation show no improvement and no closing of ethnic achievement gaps. 

In reading the literature about the mayoral systems, one repeatedly en- 
counters words like bully, authoritarian, autocratic, arbitrary, intrusive, despotic, 
dictatorial, disenfranchisement, rubber stamp, exclusion (of parents) even 
“Brezhnev-era Soviet Union.” 43 To be sure, these words appear in articles critical 
of the system, but the articles appearing in the New York media, especially the 
New York Times, appear to be highly skeptical of the information received from 
the Mayor, Chancellor and their public relations offices (even as the number of 
teachers declined, the New York City schools public relations office grew from 
three people in 2003 to 12 currently). According to Stanford University’s Michael 
Kirst, 44 “These mayors fancy themselves as better-trained public administrators. 
They have the hubris, or the guts, to take this on.” “Hubris” is a Greek word 
meaning overweening pride and in Greek literature, those who displayed hubris 
were eventually struck down by the gods. But so far, money fuels hubris. Now, 
Arne Duncan aides, abets — and requires — this version of reform with the lure of 
big government grants. In Diane Ravitch’s words, 45 “Obama Gives Bush a 3rd 
Term in Education.” 

Kirst’ s comments lead to another concern about mayoral control: mayors 
don’t last forever. The current crop of mayors running the schools wanted control. 
Their successors might not evince such motivation. At the moment, both cities are 
in the hands of people holding the position Vetat c’est moi. That is not a condition 
that will likely last forever, but the end definitely is not in sight. 

Theoretically, of course, mayoral control need not look like those dis- 
cussed here, but it is disturbing that the two most visible models appear to be si- 
multaneously undemocratic and ineffectual. Benjamin Barber once referred to 
public schools as “workshops of our democracy.” 46 It does not seem that they are 
furthering democratic goals in New York and Chicago — nor improving achieve- 

High Standards 

Why Choose This Issue? 

Excelsior! has been the motto of many educational reformers in this nation 
for over a century. In 1892, when James Mayer Rice was working for Walter 
Hines Page, editor of a brainy and provocative magazine about social issues titled 

14 of 24 

The Forum, he visited schools in 36 cities and wrote a sizzling series of expose ar- 
ticles for the magazine. According to historian Lawrence Cremin, Rice found sim- 
ilar terrible situations everywhere: “With alarming frequency, the story was the 
same: political hacks hiring untrained teachers who blindly led their charges in 
singsong drill, rote repetition, and meaningless verbiage” 47 

The call for higher standards appeared in many reform documents in the 
first half of the 20th century, but became a public cry largely after the launch of 
Sputnik in 1957, and especially after “A Nation At Risk” in 1983. On March 24, 
1958, the editors of Life magazine launched a five-part post-Sputnik series, “Cri- 
sis in Education,” with this damning assessment: “Most appalling, the standards 
of education are shockingly low.” That same year, U. S. News & World Report 
brought in Arthur Bestor, 49 author of Educational Wastelands: The Retreat from 
Learning in Our Public Schools , to explain how a technologically backward na- 
tion like Russia could beat us into space. Bestor put the blame on the low stan- 
dards of the Life Adjustment Education programs. To blame the high schools of 
the late 1950’s for failures of people who had graduated 20 or 30 years earlier was 
patently absurd, but it happened anyway. 

(In fact, on September 20, 1956, over a year prior to Sputnik, the U. S. had 
a four-stage rocket in the air. After the first three stages had fired, the rocket was 
862 miles in the air and traveling at 13,000 miles an hour. The fourth stage could 
have easily slipped a satellite into orbit — but the fourth stage was filled with sand. 
For political, military, and diplomatic reasons, the Eisenhower administration had 
decided not to orbit anything. Technology and the schools had nothing to do with 
it. Eisenhower was actually pleased when the Russians went first and was quite 
perplexed over why anyone would blame the schools.) 

No matter the realities: the quest for high standards continued. The 1977 
report 30 from a College Board panel examining the decline in SAT scores attri- 
buted most of the shift to changes in the composition of the test takers and to what 
it called a “decade of distraction.” However, it also pointed to a turn away from 
high standards. In a 1982 examination of NAEP results, Wirtz and Lapointe 
wrote, 51 “The strongly sensed deterioration in education seemed confirmation of 
the failures of both of these services (government and the professions). So it was 
decided not to rely this time on either of these agencies. Instead, the decision in 
one State and community after another was to move directly on the schools, not 
with funds but with “ standards .” This report set the stage for another that ap- 
peared the following year. “A Nation at Risk,” 52 often called “the paper Sputnik,” 
lamented “we tend to express our educational standards and expectations largely 
in terms of ‘minimum requirements.’” Focus on excellence, said the report; raise 

The first “education summit” in 1989 produced national goals and jump- 
started a movement whereby the professional education subject-matter organiza- 
tions would produce voluntary national standards in each field. What this move- 
ment revealed were wide fissures within educational disciplines about what 
should be taught and how. For example, when D.C. functionaries discovered what 
the Standards Project for the English Language Arts (SPELA), co-directed by the 
International Reading Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, 

15 of 24 

and the Center for Reading at the University of Illinois, was producing as stan- 
dards, they dropped funding for the project. On January 20, 1995, the Senate 
voted 99-1 on a resolution “To prevent the adoption of certain national history 


standards.” Part of the resolution declared “If the Department of Education, the 
National Endowment for the Humanities, or any other Federal agency provides 
funds for the development of the standards. . . the recipient of such funds should 
have a decent respect for the contributions of western civilization, and United 
States history, ideas, and institutions, to the increase of freedom and prosperity 
around the world.” 

Editorial writers in the New York Times disagreed, 54 declaring, “Reading 
the standards and support materials is exhilarating. Students will rejoice in learn- 
ing from them; teachers will cherish using them.” Bennett Johnston, the only Sen- 
ator voting against the resolution, did so because he thought it didn’t go far 
enough in condemning the standards. 

Far from being an esoteric argument among academics, the core question 
was the breadth and depth of what should be taught to America’s youth. There is 
no reason to believe that these splits have narrowed in the ensuing 20 years. Yet, 
the Obama administration is bypassing the public debate by essentially privatizing 
the writing of Common Core standards. 

The idea that standards, in and of themselves, can effect major improve- 
ments in education has been repeated often over the years. In 1993, Robert Spil- 
lane, then the superintendent of Fairfax County (VA) public schools, talked of the 
lack of standards as education’s “dirty little secret...” 55 Spillane complained that 
“the abilities of the frontline workforce in many competitor countries are substan- 
tially higher than they are in the United States”; he claimed that “these countries 
are educating everybody to higher levels than we are, and that one of the main dif- 
ferences between us and them is standards: They have them and we don’t.” This 
commonly made cause-and-effect argument is far from being an established truth. 

As is evident from tracing such historical judgments, American educators 
have, from almost the outset, been obsessed with standards. Historian Lawrence 
Cremin captured this obsession well when he wrote, “Just about the time Adam 
first whispered to Eve that they were living through an age of transition, the Ser- 
pent doubtless issued the first complaint that academic standards were beginning 
to decline.” 56 

And so it goes. 

What Do We Know? 

On March 10, 2009, President Obama’s speech to the United States His- 
panic Chamber of Commerce contained a statement that neither members of the 
Chamber nor any but a very few people in the U. S. Department of Education un- 
derstood: “Today’s system of 50 different sets of benchmarks for academic suc- 
cess means fourth-grade readers in Mississippi are scoring nearly 70 points lower 
than students in Wyoming — and they’re getting the same grade. Eight of our 
states are setting their standards so low that their students may end up on a par 
with roughly the bottom 40 percent of the world.” Where did this gap in test 

16 of 24 

scores appear, and from whom or what were the states getting “the same grade” 
for such disparate performance? 

The President did not identify the source of his statistics, but because 
Wyoming and Mississippi only share one test in common, the National Assess- 
ment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the statistics could only have come from 
NAEP. However: a quick check of NAEP results showed that Wyoming’s fourth- 
graders scored 223 while Mississippi’s came in at 204. That’s 19 points — a signif- 
icant difference, but not the 70 points the president mentioned. 

Eventually, I traced the President’s information to an obscure 2007 Na- 
tional Center on Education Statistics report (NCES) on NAEP scores which 
comes with the advice “these results should be used cautiously.” One would have 
hoped that those feeding statistics to the President would have heeded this advice. 
I would not call a nationally reported speech cautious use. 

This NCES monograph attempts to determine what level on the NAEP 
scores equates to the state test score that qualifies a student as “proficient.” Map- 
ping state-level proficient scores onto the resulting NAEP scale, the study finds 
that the equivalent NAEP score for “proficient” fourth-grade readers in Mississip- 
pi is, indeed, 70 NAEP scale points lower than the “proficient” rating for fourth- 
grade readers in Wyoming — the source of the President’s claim that states with 
wildly varying performance get the same “grade” (“proficient”). 

As determined by such mapping, most states have a proficiency standard 
for fourth-grade reading that puts them in the “Below Basic” category for NAEP 
(although two do have a margin of error that extends into the Basic category). On- 
ly seven states have a proficiency standard that correlates even with the NAEP 
Basic category; none has a cutoff that aligns with NAEP’s Proficient category. 

Several observations about data from this study are worth noting. First, the 
most dramatic figures in terms of states falling Below Basic are those on fourth- 
grade reading results. At the eighth grade, most states’ reading scores fall into the 


Basic range, as they do in mathematics for both grades 4 and 8. When all results 
are considered, it becomes evident that the President’s handlers also gave him on- 
ly the most dramatic Mississippi-Wyoming difference. For reading at the eighth 
grade, the difference is about 30 points. 

Moreover, the accuracy of the equivalency scale NAEP developed is open 
to some question. Raw scores on the NAEP assessment itself don’t align well with 
the equivalency scale. 

All of this, to me, points to a conclusion that there is little reason to refer 
to the NAEP equivalents except to show that states vary great in the “rigor” of 
their standards. If some states with low standards score high and some states with 
high standards score low, where’s the utility in calculating a NAEP equivalent for 
the states’ standards? The paper itself observes that “There is, at best, a weak rela- 
tionship between the NAEP score equivalents and the states’ average scores on 
NAEP.” One has to wonder why a statistic from this study found its way into the 
President’s speech. 

But despite the differences in state standards and the umbrage expressed 
by the President about these differences, there is no evidence presented that the 

17 of 24 

simple act of raising standards or making them uniform across states will, in fact, 
cause increased student learning. 

Other statistics used to argue for higher standards also lack persuasiveness 
when they are closely examined. Regarding international comparisons, the 1995 
Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (then called the Third In- 
ternational Mathematics and Science Study) indicates that a particular cluster of 
states were outscored by only six nations in mathematics and by only one in 
science. The cluster was included Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, 
North Dakota, and Wisconsin (confirming Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s earlier ob- 
servation that high test scores in the U. S. depended on proximity to Canada). 

Despite their strong performance on this international measure, in its 2006 
review of the “State of State Standards,” 59 the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation 
awarded these states’ standards letter grades that ranged from D+ to F, except for 
Iowa — which had no standards. Deliberately assigning low grades is a way of in- 
fluencing the policy decision to increase the level of the standards and their un- 
iformity. Yet, again, no evidence is provided that simply raising standards im- 
proves learning. 

Distinctions between content standards, performance standards, and op- 
portunity to learn standards have also been blurred. For example, although the 
2000 National Council of Teachers of Mathematics includes “process” standards 
such as “recognize reasoning and proof as fundamental aspects of mathematics,” 60 
currently there has been little or no talk in the calls of moving standards beyond 
simple content. While the President did appear to be calling for uniform perfor- 
mance standards, without adequate attention to opportunity to learn standards, 
such uniformity would be iniquitous. 

Despite repeated failures in the past and the lack of any relationship to 
date between standards and performance, the Council of Chief State School Of- 
ficers, the National Governors Association, Achieve, Inc., ACT and The College 
Board all have undertaken to create a set of “voluntary” common core state stan- 
dards in reading and math with other subjects to follow. Work on the K-12 seg- 
ment of the standards program is expected to be complete in December 2009. 

How Promising Is This Reform? 

The President also said, “Of course, raising standards alone will not make 
much of a difference unless we provide teachers and principals with the informa- 
tion they need to make sure students are prepared to meet those standards.” This 
information is, of course, student test scores. Finally, he said, we need to link 
these test scores to teacher performance to give more money to the “good” ones 
and dump the bad ones. 

In other words, what we’re doing in schools is fine, we just have to do it 
better. (The more suspicious among us also think that “doing it better” means 
turning it over to the corporate sector). The old factory model is OK; we just need 
to replace some of the old manufacturing machinery with more information tech- 
nology. It is Taylorism for the information age. 

18 of 24 

David Marshak, Professor Emeritus at Seattle University, noticed 61 that 
the “improvements” the President and Secretary Duncan are calling for won’t 
make schools look much like Sidwell Friends School, the school that Obama’s 
daughters attend. And he asked, why doesn’t Obama try to make all schools more 
like Sidwell Friends? Certainly Sidwell has high standards of a sort, mostly for 
admission, but a read of the Sidwell philosophy gives a strong impression that the 
standards are not the essence of the school. Marshak draws on Peter Senge to di- 
rect us away from Taylorism. He cites Senge as saying “Today’s problems come 
from yesterday’s ‘solutions.’” Marshak comments: 

Factory model schools, though always flawed by racism and clas- 
sism, worked reasonably well when America was primarily an in- 
dustrial society. But given our evolution into a more postindustrial 
cultures, the industrial elements of schools — mass production, ri- 
gid time and curricular structures, simplistic age-grading, and de- 
personalization and alienation — have become the problem, not the 
solution. 62 

In my opinion, the Obama/Duncan approach would only exacerbate the 
problems created by our industrial model — national academic standards and a na- 
tional test, merit pay for higher test scores, a longer school day, a longer school 
week, a longer school year and charter schools handed off to entrepreneurs. More 
math, more science. This is an industrial command-and-control model on steroids. 

Sidwell, by contrast, encourages a rich interdisciplinary curriculum de- 
signed to stimulate inquiry; the expression of artistic abilities; reflection; “ste- 
wardship of the natural world”; service to others; scientific investigation; creative 
expression; group as well as individual learning; personalization of learning and 
education of the whole person. It is worth noting that while President Obama pro- 
vides us with articulate and detailed explanations of his plans for the economy, 
health-care, and foreign policy, he and Duncan both speak in glib generalizations 
and trivialities when they address education. 

Higher standards as a curative for school ills have been actively promoted 
for over 100 years. It seems to have had no effect, at least from the perspective of 
the public school critics. Secretary Duncan spoke of the “education crisis” in vir- 
tually all of his early speeches, coupling it to the economic crisis. Thus, after 100 
years of cries for higher standards, we are still in an education crisis. The push for 
higher standards has not worked. Perhaps it is time to try something else. The 
Sidwell approach looks good to me. Can it work in schools such as the one Finda 
Perlstein describes in Tested ? 63 She thinks so, but not while high-stakes testing 
displaces true education. This is the critical issue. As Yong Zhao pointed out in 
the Detroit Free Press, 64 “President Barack Obama and national education offi- 
cials appear to be moving the United States toward national K-12 standards — a 
mandate that would cause irreversible damage to an education system already suf- 
fering from No Child Feft Behind.” 

19 of 24 

He concludes, “Obama and the nation's governors should preserve the leg- 
acy of our Founding Fathers and build a nation of diverse talents and creative en- 
trepreneurs rather than a nation of standardized test-takers.” 

Of standards, Wirtz and Lapointe also wrote, “A standard can be made 
‘higher’ either by improving the educational objectives on which it is based or by 
raising scores or grades that are required for ‘passing’ and for being considered 
superior or excellent.” 65 For the last 30 years or so, we have been trying the latter 
with disastrous results. The NGA/CCSSO/Achieve/ACT/College Board group is 
presumably doing the former. Given the cloak of secrecy that surrounds their 
work, though, and the questionable resumes of some of those who are part of the 
“work groups” producing the standards, I am dubious. 

20 of 24 

Notes & References 

'Ramirez, E., & Clark, K. (2009). What Arne Duncan Thinks of No Child Left Behind, US News & World Report. 
Retrieved February 15, 2009, from 

2 Brooks, D, (2009, May 7). The Harlem Miracle. The New York Times, A31. 

3 Glod, M. (2007, December 4). U.S. Teens Trail Peers Around World on Math-Science Test. The Washington Post. 
retrieved December 5, 2007, from 
dyn/content/article/2007/1 2/04/AR2007 1 204007 30.html 

4 Data from the 2001 administration are used here because in the more recent PIRLS, the U. S. Department of Educa- 
tion shifted to a coarser mode of presenting poverty levels, reporting the scores of schools where all stu- 
dents received free and reduced-price meals, where some (undefined) did, and where none did. 

5 Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain, Working Paper No. 3. (2006). Cambridge, 

MA: National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. Retrieved August 8, 2009, from and working papers/wp3/ 

6 Shonkoff, J., & Phillips, D.A. (Eds.) (2000). From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood 
Development . Washington, D. C.: National Academy Press. 

7 Berliner, D. C. (2009). Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success. Boulder and Tempe: 

Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved September 14, 2009, 

"Berliner, D. C. (2009). Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success. Boulder and Tempe: 

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9 Otto, M. (2007). Boy's Death Fuels Drives to Fund Dental Aid to Poor. Washington Post. Retrieved March 3, 2007, 

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